New Moon Review: Team Jacob Ascending

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Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the Twilight sequel New Moon

The bad news for all those screaming, stalking, fainting, fervent fans of Twilight star Robert Pattinson is that he is largely absent from most of the sequel, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. But that's the good news for everyone else.

If pressed to name the weakest link in Stephenie Meyer's four-book series, fans will usually point to New Moon, for the simple reason that the hero — hot, brooding vampire Edward Cullen — decides to leave his mortal soul mate Bella in order to protect her from himself and his kind. He disappears on page 73 and does not return to full-time smoldering duty until page 451. The heart of the story is about how much Bella misses him — as does the reader. When the first copies of the book appeared, Meyer had to urge some fans to read it twice after she found that they were so anxious (or annoyed) by Edward's absence that they were skipping to the end. The interim consolation provided by Bella's hunky, smitten buddy Jacob Black is nowhere near enough to make up for Edward's absence. At least not on the page.

On the screen, it's a different story. The worst thing about New Moon the book is the best thing about New Moon the movie. As Edward, Pattinson is all pale passion and tortured restraint; his eyebrows, like muskrats determined to mate, hunch together in the middle of his sunken face; the few times he smiles, it looks as if it hurts, and he still seems reluctant to move his mouth when he talks. If you had not read the series, in which Edward is infinitely more appealing and dimensional, you'd wonder what Bella was doing staring off into space in deep mope over this guy for weeks on end.

Especially when Jacob Black arrives on the scene to distract her from her melancholy. Where Pattinson's Edward is cold, bloodless and trapped in his head, Taylor Lautner's Jacob is warm, tawny, genial and able to get Kristen Stewart's shrink-wrapped Bella to stretch out and relax a little onscreen. It's as though the sun can come back out once Edward leaves; there are genuinely funny moments in their scenes together, not to mention sexual tension. Expect an eruption in the theater during the scene in which a thrill-seeking Bella wrecks the motorcycle Jacob rebuilt for her and he strips off his T-shirt to tend her bleeding head. From that point on, his torso remains so central a character it should be given its own credit line.

What the plot of New Moon reveals is that Edward and his vampire family are not the only residents of foggy Forks, Wash., to have secrets. Jacob and his Quileute Indian friends, as readers will already know, have a monstrous side as well; when there's a vampire in the area, they transform into werewolves to fight them. And when the wolves appear — ginormous, growling, leaping and lunging predator-protectors — the movie springs to life. The scene in which they chase the vengeful vampire Victoria through the deep woods is vivid and furious, a bracing break from the long stretches of teen heartbreak. ("You gave me everything just by breathing," Edward tells Bella. Oy.) Where Twilight is and remains mainly a love story, this chapter of the tale involves far more action, vampire-on-vampire violence, wolf on wolf, wolf on vampire, you name it.

Along the way, the supporting characters also seem to be having more fun. Bella's dad Charlie is again played to sweet, dry perfection by Billy Burke. The other Cullen vampires get personalities, rather than merely orbiting the periphery of Edward and Bella's obsession. Alice is no longer just a cute little pixie; she can scheme and snarl as needed. Even silent Jasper gets to work his magical power to make us feel good. For the first time, we meet vampire royalty, with Michael Sheen as Aro, a kind of vampire Pope, and a beautifully creepy Dakota Fanning as his princess of torture.

It's in the look of the film that the added time and money committed to New Moon, compared with Twilight, become most apparent. The scenes are lusher, the foliage leafier, the makeup mercifully improved so that the vampire characters don't all look coated in calamine. And the settings, from the coastal cliffs and old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest (Forks has migrated north to Vancouver) to the sun-drenched Tuscan glories of Volterra (the Italian scenes were filmed in Montepulciano, no doubt to the eternal gratitude of its tourism board), give the movie a richer feel, even as it maintains its indie sound track and occasionally surreal diversions. Twihards will appreciate director Chris Weitz's faithfulness to the source text, even as he improves on it. And Weitz (with the help of Lautner's abs) might suddenly find himself responsible for a series of mass conversions: from Team Edward to Team Jacob.